Saturday 20 January 2018

Theatre: Jacques Brel is alive and in a nice semi-d

Rory Nolan, Karen McCartney and Risteard Cooper in 'Jacques Brel...' at the Gate
Rory Nolan, Karen McCartney and Risteard Cooper in 'Jacques Brel...' at the Gate

Emer O'Kelly

Our reviewer finds the desperation missing in a rendition of Jacques Brel's work.

Jacques Brel was more or less disowned by his respectably bourgeois Belgian family for the vicious intensity of his performances of his own songs.

He was described on more than one occasion as "spitting his lyrics" at an audience.

The songs have survived for those very reasons: their darkness, their obsessive pre-occupation with the uglier and more deadly side of life and death, get down in the gutter, and are intended to stop you in your tracks. If you are bourgeois, they are meant to give you pause for thought to question your complacencies... as Brel himself did.

The compendium of some of Brel's best-known songs that make up the musical show that is Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is always a tour de force, even when it is presented as a sophisticated piece of drawing room cabaret; but it can, and should be more.

The new production at the Gate in Dublin (the show was last seen here in the late 1970s when Noel Pearson produced it with John Kavanagh and his singer sister, the late Ann Bushnell in the lead roles) is slick and utterly professional, and trots along tunefully. But it is unlikely to give anyone pause for thought about anything, much less life and death in their seamier aspects... which is what Brel wrote and sang about. Of the four performers, only Rory Nolan comes anywhere close to the deadly desperation behind the songs. (Though Risteard Cooper does a fine job with The Port of Amsterdam.)

The cabaret singer Camille O'Sullivan withdrew from the cast shortly before opening night; she has made a successful career for years with her interpretation and understanding of the nightmare qualities of true cabaret, and one can only guess that she would have given the production an authentically uncomfortable edge had she made it to opening night.

But neither Karen McCartney nor Stephanie McKeon, quite frankly, seems to have a clue what they're about. They sing delightfully, and in tune, but that's not enough.

Timid Frieda with "her valises held tightly in her hand" will not make a career on the stage, but will end up selling herself on the street corner. In My Death Waits, love is a masochistic determination for physical and mental self-destruction. Getting such things across is a challenge, and neither woman manages to portray the pain and ugliness.

But Rory Nolan, in current parlance, "gets it".

The difference, in all probability is that he is an actor rather than a singer, and just happens also to have a fine singing voice. And he puts everything across with spine-chilling hopelessness, especially the ghastliness of Next as shivering, nameless men queue in a seedy clinic to have their venereal diseases inspected and treated.

Director Alan Stanford says in a programme note that his aim is to bring the show into the style of "true cabaret".

Unfortunately, a few scattered tables and chairs in the Gate's now much-used colonnaded drawing room set (which deserves honourable retirement before it dies of old age and audiences die of visual boredom) don't do that. And nor does the genteel overall approach.

The fine musical quartet is directed by Cathal Synnott.


The title Animalia seems to suggest there will be a certain feral quality in a play. Perhaps that was the intention of the author Ian Toner: but it really doesn't come off.

Sarah and Danielle are next-door neighbours, and over the years have forged a bond by shouting at each other from their bedroom windows. They're both 11 years old - but neither has what is usually regarded as a "normal" home life.

Sarah is being reared by her grandparents (portrayed as being closer to centenarians than in their 50s, as acted out by Louise O'Meara); and Danielle's mother suffers from something, or maybe some things, seeming to vary from obsessive disorder to pill addiction and/or just plain lethargy.

Then there are the class bullies (and as always, they're very popular). They're called Brigid and Lisa. And there's Jason, who for some reason never seems to do anything other than wheel his bike; at least that's the way he's portrayed as acted out by Ashleigh Dorrell.

There's a build-up, seeming more or less to be triggered by pre-puberty hormones. But it's not very clear, and it's certainly not very explosive. Above all, it's not animalistic - and although there's a nasty street fight, it's more pointless scrap than world war. Of course, I may have been missing something; but I was paying attention, so I put it down to undeveloped writing, which incidentally used dialogue never heard on the lips of 11 year olds.

The lunchtime two-hander is directed by Sarah Finlay.

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